Sunday 1st December 2019
There was a time when Oxford was the oft quoted example of head-to-head quality competition between two major bus companies as each operator aimed for a high standard of service to attract custom.
Oxford’s bus market matured after a statutory partnership deal led to a coordinated network so its fallen to Southampton to take on the mantle of England’s most contested bus city.
Bus competition is nothing new to the south coast city – the upstart Solent Blue Line was an early newcomer taking on the mighty municipal owned Southampton City Transport in 1987 shortly after deregulation before it expanded significantly by taking over the Southampton based operations of Hampshire Bus enabling Stagecoach to famously make a financial killing on selling that Company’s former bus garage and bus station in the city.
The ensuing decades have seen Southampton City Transport sold to its employees in 1993 then on to First Bus in 1997 with consistent shedding of a traditionally complex municipally run route network into a slimmed down core now marketed under a modern brand of CityRed.
Meanwhile Solent Blue Line (part of Southern Vectis) sold out to Go-Ahead, rebranded certain routes, and then the whole network, as Bluestar and slowly expanded by taking on routes and parts of routes progressively given up by First Bus.
The consequence being many areas and bus corridors in Southampton now have both red and blue buses, sometimes via different route patterns, sometimes running head-to-head.
The twists and turns of route changes in recent years are too complex to record here but I was intrigued by announcements from both companies a couple of months ago of ‘exciting new services as a result of customer feedback’ (aka ‘we’re going to try and gain competitive market share in another area’).
I decided to take a trip over to Southampton yesterday and see what’s occurring.
As on previous visits I was impressed to see clear information for both companies provided at bus stops and in shelters with departure times and posters.
Unlike other towns with bus competition, in Southampton information always appears very orderly and organised.
Bus stop flags are also clear and well presented, which is not always the case in competitive situations.
However, there were some intriguing inconsistencies in route presentation …
…. and I was puzzled by quite a number of missing flags around the city, replaced by temporary signs affixed to poles with cable ties.
The new competitive incursions that caught my attention were introduced ten weeks ago on 22nd September and have all the hallmarks of ‘tit-for-tat’ spoilers.
As usual in such circumstances where areas and corridors end up being over bussed for the numbers travelling, neither operator can be experiencing improved margins; but meanwhile passengers are certainly enjoying higher frequencies – and for seniors like me who don’t have to worry about brand loyalty by having an operator specific ticket, it felt like a real luxury yesterday to hop from one operator to another checking out the product on offer.
As befits these two operators, both equal each other on quality. Vehicles are clean and comfortable; well presented with smart attractive branding both outside and inside with pleasing decor and informative cove panels.
Drivers were also all pleasant and helpful. The standard of driving was faultless.
Clear next stop announcements are made and displayed by both operators; wi-fi is available and Bluestar have usb sockets.
I couldn’t source a First Bus CityRed timetable book in the city – last time I picked one up from the main library – but I found all the information I needed easily online including a helpful network map before I left home.
Commendably Bluestar have a city centre Travel Shop which is well stocked with timetable leaflets and books for neighbouring networks run by ‘more’ and Hampshire County Council produced books for Romsey and Eastleigh/Hedge End. There’s also a book for the rather strangely numbered route network Bluestar run on behalf of the University of Southampton branded as Unibus which is open to all passengers.
Personally I’d prefer to see a timetable book rather than individual route leaflets for Bluestar’s network too, but perhaps it’s a reflection of the instability of the network due to the developing competition that’s a factor here. If so, it doesn’t inspire long term confidence.
I’d also like to see a printed map for the Bluestar network combining the detailed route map of Southampton (above) and the extended area map showing fare zones as shown on the Travel Shop front window (below).
This latest competitive spat involves Bluestar introducing a new route 19 into one of First Bus’s heartland areas in the east of the city – Thornhill – replicating First Bus CityRed route 3 which runs from there into the city centre and to the western suburbs.
Thornhill already has high frequency Bluestar route 18 running ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes) via Bitterne to the city centre and then out to Millbank in the west of the city. This route saw an investment in a fleet of smart new dual-door Enviro 200 buses a year ago making quite an impact. It turns round at Eastpoint – a sub-area of Thornhill relinquished by First Bus a few years ago.
City Red 3 also runs ‘at frequent intervals’ (every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays) with Volvo Wright bodied Eclipse single decks with 2+1 seating in the front half and leather seats, and operates from Thornhill Fairfax Court via Sholing and Woolston to the city centre before continuing cross-city to Lord’s Hill.
Bluestar 19 runs every fifteen minutes with a promise of an increased ten minute frequency in the ‘New Year’. Rather than running cross-city, as CityRed 3 does, it turns round at the Central Station.
I took a ride on both a Bluestar 19 and a CityRed 3 and loadings were pretty much split according to which bus had arrived first along the route save for a minority of passengers who clearly had a loyalty branded ticket for one company or the other and waited for their favoured bus.
In retaliation for the Bluestar 19 incursion into Thornhill, First Bus began running a new CityRed 1 between the city centre, Totton and the residential area of Calmore to the west of the city also from 22nd September.
Totton had been exclusively served by Bluestar routes 11 and 12 as well as route 6 (on its way to Lymington) after First Bus withdrew from Totton some years ago. The 11 and 12 provide a combined 10 minute frequency to Totton with the 11 continuing every 20 minutes to West Totton and the 12 every 20 minutes to Calmore.
New CityRed 1 runs every 10 minutes on Mondays to Fridays to Calmore significantly trouncing the Bluestar 12’s twenty minute frequency but CityRed 1 also drops to every 20 minutes on Saturdays albeit cynically timetabled to be 3 minutes ahead of the 12.
Interestingly First Bus drop frequencies on a number of CityRed routes on Saturdays compared to Mondays to Fridays.
On my ride out to Totton and around Calmore on a CityRed 1 we picked up passengers waiting with no one hanging back for the Bluestar 12 running three minutes behind us but when I switched on to the 12 for the ride back from Calmore in the loop arrangement around the estate, we played cat and mouse for a while having caught up the 1 and split the load equally.
From Totton back to the city the CityRed went ahead as the 12 waited its scheduled departure 3 minutes behind.
Both Thornhill and Calmore are euphemistically called ‘good bus territories’ to describe their demographics but I doubt there’ll be enough new passenger generation to maintain margins at sustainably profitable levels as a result of the higher frequencies now provided following this latest upping of competition between these two bus company giants.
I also took a ride on a frequent Bluestar 18 to Millbrook (another ‘good bus territory’ residential area in the west of Southampton) which is hotly contested by CityRed 2 running every 8 minutes Mondays to Fridays and every 10 minutes on Saturdays.
It was much the same pattern as in Thornhill and Calmore with the first bus arriving picking up waiting passengers save for a few with loyalty tickets for one operator or the other.
Not surprisingly ticket prices offer good value, and are broadly comparable with inevitable “promotional” bargains. For example to Thornhill and Millbrook, which are in the ‘Southampton City’ zone for Bluestar a day ticket is £3.40, and to Calmore (in the ‘City Zone Plus”) it’s £3.70. A single from either Thornhill or Millbrook to the city centre is a bargain at just £2 and from Calmore it’s £3. A ‘Southampton City’ zone weekly is just £9.
A Day ticket within the CityReds ‘Southampton Zone” is £3.50 and £9 for a week.
There is an all operator SolentGo ticket (“from A to B to sea”) costing £5 for a day’s travel in the Southampton City zone, but a pricey £20 for a week – meaning it’s currently cheaper to buy a weekly ticket from both Bluestar and First Bus than the combined ticket, albeit you can also use the inter-urban routes within Southampton run by Xelabus using the latter.
As mentioned above, the presentation of buses is to a high standard – I only noticed two gremlins on yesterday’s visit (which is very good going compared to other places I visit)…
… and these are more than made up for by the welcome abundance of positive messages about using buses at bus stops and on buses.
Inevitably local media reports have woken up to what’s happening and as usual local politicians don’t really know what to make of it all.
New Forest Councillor Harrison is downbeat about the new competition reckoning the extra route “adds nothing for passengers” but goes on to conclude “one bus company will be driven out of business, the other will have a monopoly and we all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice”.
So I’m not sure whether Councillor Harrison favours giving passengers a choice or not!
Ironically Bluestar is part of Go SouthCoast which is well used to bus competition, experiencing it in both its main urban areas – Southampton and Bournemouth – while it also trades under a monopoly on the Isle of Wight – where, uniquely, passengers enjoy a comprehensive bus service throughout Christmas Day – so perhaps we don’t “all know what happens when customers don’t have a choice” after all.
Meanwhile back in Southampton recent years have brought many changes to bus competition in the city and 2019 has seen futher interesting developments. Riding around the network and seeing the numbers travelling yesterday, I suspect there’ll be more developments to come in 2020 if Go-Ahead and First Bus want to see those elusive sustainable margins.
This does seem a rear-guard action by First after its usual continual running down of services in Hampshire. They have cut services across the city, and suddenly seem to have been shocked into some form of retaliation. I’m not sure whether First have the stomach for a prolonged fight, and would expect after a couple of months for them to do their usual and sulk off and cut their competing services and re-commence its managed run down as per so many other places.
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There has for a long time been an extremely vocal anti-First contingent in Southampton who naysay everything First do and generally try to talk First down and big the competition up at every opportunity, with repeated predictions of the complete withdrawal of all First operations in Southampton, and First’s changes and withdrawals being blasted as deliberate running down of the business whereas Bluestar’s equivalent changes and withdrawals are spoken of as simply being good business sense. The position seems to be ‘First bad, Bluestar good’ regardless of what is actually happening.
I’m no First lover, having seen them pretty much destroy my “home” operation Midland Red West, but there does seem to be an utterly stupid level of anti-First-ness in that part of the world and a total inability by local commentators to take a balanced viewpoint.
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As with the “Law of the Jungle”, once a company such as First appear weak, and in their case on the point of sale, Competitors will move in either to reduce value still more with possible purchase in mind, or better still, let First simply pack up and go as has happened in places such as Northampton. It is simply normal business practice. But of course, since 1985, Southampton has always had an element of competition as encouraged by current law, so why do Politicians interfere? It is a pity Councillor Harrison and the rest of them do not ask more strongly why buses are left to fight for road space trying to bring responsibly travelling passengers in and out of the City each day.
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This highlights the issue when politicians get involved with buses… the Councillor doesn’t want competition in case it results in one operator withdrawing from a route and leaving a monopoly, but at the same time wants just the one operator to run along a particular route. Or am I missing something…?
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Trouble is politicians don’t really understand how it all works, and certainly don’t understand how the flawed OAP travel benefit is killing bus services.
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We’ve been covering the developing situation in Southampton for over ten years. In that time, First has gradually shrunk, offering now just a handful of routes. Areas they dominated a decade ago like the university and Swaythling are now unserved by First. At the same time, Bluestar has expanded, making a success of routes that First had given up on. The City Red 1 to Calmore will not last another six months, but Bluestar 19 is here to stay. First used to have the advantage with their more comprehensive network within the city, but that advantage is now with Bluestar. Anyone needing full city-wide coverage will not be buying a First season ticket. It’s a war of attrition that First are losing. They could turn it around, but they’ve lost momentum so have an uphill struggle. That’s not being anti-First, that’s just stating the facts as they are in our city.
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You’ve been predicting the imminent total demise of First Southampton for over 10 years now, but it hasn’t happened yet despite your utter certainty, your constant talking down of the First Southampton business and your blatant pro-Bluestar bias.
Perhaps it’s time you stopped letting your prejudices influence your blog and instead just get on with reporting what is actually happening?
To be honest I’m surprised at the continued commitment First have in Southampton, when they have form on managed retrenchment and underinvestment in so many areas in the UK. The list of towns and cities where First have more or less given up is well known not forgetting where they have just given up ie Northampton, Plymouth, Wirral, Wigan, Manchester and so on. So with that in mind, talking down First is really of their own doing since they have form in retrenchment.
Your usual anti-First rhetoric, not backed up by facts but just based on your blue-tinted view on life. I use both operators regularly and both have their strengths and weaknesses. You seem blind to Bluestar’s weaknesses and to First’s strengths.
I would compliment the author of this blog, Mr French, on the fair and even-handed commentary he provided, despite having strong connections with Go Ahead. It was a pleasure to read an unbiased view of bus provision in Southampton. The real villains are the city council, who are absolutely useless at most things but particualarly at bus priority measures, which are sorely needed in our congested city.
You used to be able to pick up a timetable booklet from First (from the now-closed travel shop) and sometimes from the foyer of West Quay.
Now however, First seem to produce a random selection of timetable for some of their routes – the 1 has a lovely DL-sized leaflet designed by Best Impressions where as the 6 & 8 (the only other timetables I have seen) seem to be internally designed mini-leaflets and are all the worse for it.
Bluestar’s network does have frequent changes, but they’re mostly reliability improvements during the peaks and evenings due to the regions worsening congestion (for example: some Bluestar 1 morning journeys to Winchester are extended by up to 50% from 60 mins run time to 90 mins!).
Producing a timetable booklet wouldn’t work very well for Bluestar as these timetable changes are spread out throughout the year – unlike Southern Vectis & Morebus, for instance, who have just the two timetable changes for the Summer and Winter.
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It was ALL SO SIMPLE when I was at Uni in Southampton: the Corporation buses served the city, Hants & Dorset the hinterland (I think that, on outbound journey, they were not allowed to drop off within city boundaries, nor pick up on inbound ones). There was one joint route: the 54 to the Thornhill area I think.
Dare I say that the network wasn’t very innovative – but also that it worked!
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In the 10 years we have lived in the area we have seen Blue Bus gradually dominate Southampton. However I am sure it was the reason why First vastly improved our local 4/5 from Locks Heath to the extent that we now almost never drive to Southampton. Blue Line have kept off our route which only carries significant amounts of Southampton local traffic on sections parallel with Blue Line on football days at St Mary’s. The 4/5 is generally very reliable but suffers from traffic delays at peak times and when there are problems on the overloaded M27. Maybe Blue Line didn’t want to risk their reputation by getting involved anyway . In Southampton I never bother with a timetable as I broadly know the network and frequencies are high
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The battle is over and BlueStar seem to have won with First Bus’s City Red operation closing
Not surprised as Blue Star have been gaining fur years . Pity the roadside timetables for First Solent Rangef 4:5 is so poor apart from in the City Centre